You Can Never Go Home Again

Writer-director Mouly Surya on how she struggled to find her identity as an Indonesian filmmaker after years spent studying abroad.

Coming home doesn’t feel much like a homecoming when you’ve been away for so long you can’t recognize where you’re from anymore. That was how I felt in 2005 when I returned from studying in Australia. Everything in Jakarta was chaotic, disorganized, and for the first time in my life I felt out of place in the city where I was born and raised.

Six-and-a-half years before, right after Suharto had resigned as President of Indonesia following 35 years of dictatorship, I’d flown off to Australia, on my own for the first time, to study what my family and I believed was my life’s passion. It didn’t matter that I’d once blurted out that film school sounded fun, literature was a much a safer choice for me, just 18 years old and the youngest daughter. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl; even when I couldn’t read and write yet, I’d scribble in a diary my father gave me for my birthday. But doing it in college – in a second language, and when it was expected that my writing should have “form” – was entirely different. It seemed more important to me, now I could enjoy the freedoms of a Western country, to express the angsty and early twenties version of myself. I stayed quiet in my Philosophy class during heavy discussions about whether God existed or animals had souls, but expressed myself in how I dressed (I once tried the Marilyn Manson look – those were the days!) and started making amateur films with my friends. It might sound clichéd, but when I finally enrolled in film school for a master’s degree, I felt like I’d finally found my place in life. Or at least found what I wanted todo for the rest of my life. When I saw Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon for the first time, I also knew what kind of filmmaker I wanted to be.

Mouly Surya as a film student (picture by Katz Bryan-Keyes)

I flew back home to Indonesia with my head held up high, feeling like I had figured out everything in Australia and confident that with my master’s in film (which very few people back home had) I would conquer the Indonesian film industry. I was arrogant and thought what I was bringing back with me – a first draft of what would become my first feature – was something very special. But in those early months, I did not effortlessly find my place in the Indonesian film industry.

My first job back in Indonesia was as an intern on a horror film. Half of the movie had already been shot in a different city, but due to production problems the producers decided to film the rest in Jakarta. They now had more limited resources, there was a different director of photography and half the team of assistant directors now had quit to take other jobs. So it came to be that I was the only person working below the 1st assistant director – who suddenly decided to quit on my first day of shooting.

Mouly Surya as A.D. (picture by Sony Seniawan)

My initial experiences as an assistant director weren’t good. I was too outspoken; I always said what was on my mind, and I quickly came to learn that it made people uncomfortable. I wasn’t polite enough to my seniors and was too young to be so opinionated.

As a result, I became defensive and for a while played the role of the victim. When Rama Adi – then my boyfriend, now my husband and also my producer – laughed out loud while reading my script because he thought it was badly written, I almost wanted to break up with him and just find a passive boyfriend who’d lick my wounds.

Rama gave me a script for a film he’d been involved with the year before. Comparing that screenplay with mine, I got it. My script was the work of a student and didn’t at all capture the feel of where the characters lived. There was no real drama, there were just scenes that a film student thought were cool.

I started to see more local movies, and one day was going to screen my short films along with a locally educated director roughly my age called Edwin (no last name) who my friends told me was a future star of Indonesian cinema. On the way to the venue, I asked Rama whether I should ask to have my shorts play first or second. He quickly answered, “First. His short film was in Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight.”

I was grateful for Rama’s brutal honesty that day (as well as on other days). It wasn’t just that Edwin’s films were good, it was that they not only had a true cinematic aesthetic but also an Indonesian identity that was evidently lacking in both my script and my English-language shorts.

I kept working on my script and decided to prolong my career as an assistant director for another two years, to gain the experience of handling a big team and communicating with people. I also threw away the idea that I had talent. I continued to work in film only because my passion for cinema remained undimmed, and because I fervently believed there was nothing else I could do in life.

I shelved my Stanley Kubrick DVDs and bought new ones: Garin Nugroho’s Of Love and Eggs, Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern and Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I also rediscovered my passion for Japanese anime in the TV show Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Studio Ghibli films.

Mouly Surya directing her first feature, Fiksi (picture by Sony Seniawan)

After those two years, Rama decided to let go his dream of becoming a cinematographer and instead produced my first film, Fiksi, a few months before we finally got married. I directed a four-minute proof-of-concept clip for Fiksi to show to investors, which was my introduction as an Indonesian director. Rama told me that it was the first time he acknowledged that I had a cinematic voice that I should develop and hold on to. It’s something I’m still working on to this day.

Moulya Surya (right) during the making of her second feature, What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (picture by Sony Seniawan)

In 2017, more than a decade after Fiksi, I came home from premiering Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts in Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight, and things weren’t the same as before. The local audience and film industry were more than excited to see Marlina. They knew Marlina was different, but that difference was interesting. They knew Marlina was outspoken and might make them feel uncomfortable. Marlina is Indonesian and has an Indonesian identity, but some parts of her don’t feel Indonesian. But it’s OK, because it’s just cinema.

Returning to Jakarta, I still held my head high, not out of arrogance but out of reservation. I wanted people to know me through my films, instead of through how I’m portrayed in the media. Maybe I did lose some of myself and conform to Indonesian culture in order to fit in at home once again, but cinema will always be the form I used to convey my true self. Immorality, dark thoughts and indecency have no place at the dinner table, but they are fine in a dark room projected onto a screen.

I might still feel out of place, but my film – still an anomaly – is home.

Featured image by Eriekn Juragan

Mouly Surya was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she currently lives. Considered one of Indonesia’s most gifted filmmakers, Surya premiered her award-winning debut, Fiksi, at the Busan International Film Festival. Her second feature, What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love, was the first-ever Indonesian film to premiere at Sundance, and went on to many festivals including Karlovy Vary and Rotterdam, where it received the NETPAC Award. In addition to making films, she also teaches directing. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, her third film, is out through Icarus Films on June 22.